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Vashti, the NRA and the ‘Memuchan Move’

Wayne Lapierre doubled down to protect the status quo, in a move reminiscent of how Haman reframed the queen's refusal
Illustrative: Demonstrators take part in a student protest for gun control legislation in front of the White House, February 21, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Illustrative: Demonstrators take part in a student protest for gun control legislation in front of the White House, February 21, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Each year, as I study and teach Megillat Esther, I hear it call out “learn the lessons found here!” This year, as we listen to it read it in synagogues across the globe, an especially frightening lesson shouts out at us all. It’s about what I call the Memuchan Move.

What is the Memuchan Move? Let’s pick of the story at its crescendo, in the middle of Chapter 1.

“On the seventh day,” we are told, “when the king’s heart was good with wine,” Achashverosh instructs his eunuchs to bring Vashti the Queen to his feast “to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials, for she was of good appearance.” She refuses[1], and a crisis ensues.

The king has no idea what to do. He calls on his advisers the “ones who know the law,” to determine “what to do with Queen Vashti.” He wants to know what the law will demand of him, and what the law will allow him to do. He also seeks advice from the “ones who know the times.[2]” They are the ones who have a pulse on the moment — who grasp the mood of the people, what they will support, and what threatens them. They are his pollsters, his social media savvy people.

What advice might be given to him? Let’s imagine for just a moment that he had an enlightened group of advisers, who saw this an opportunity for self reflection, perhaps a sober community conversation on the way in which women are sexually harassed and abused by some in society. “If it pleases the king,” they might have said, “you could impress the world with your readiness to rethink attitudes, and serve as a model for the rest…” But, of course, that is not what happened.

No one gives such a response. It is then that Memuchan steps forward with a very different message indeed. He advises that the king double-down and come out swinging. In a brilliantly cynical move, he crafts a different narrative. He turns the personal humiliation of the king into a national crisis for all men. He warns: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Achashverosh. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands…“.

In the narrative that Memuchan tells, the issue is not a couple’s spat, nor a royal power struggle, and certainly not a need to rethink bad behavior. No. the issue is the threat to the very order of life as they have lived it. If she is allowed to get away with this, the patriarchy crumbles. This is the “Memuchan Move” — the cynical reframing of the narrative to retain the status quo, and protect privilege and interests along the way.

Vashti is eliminated, the imagined “revolution” is suppressed, and the decree goes out that “every man shall be the ruler of his home”.

We, who read this story in 2018, most surely appreciate its message for the present.

Evidence of the Memuchan Move being deployed in real time, was given to me no sooner had I finished teaching this topic (I had titled the class “Vashti, Esther and #MeToo) in my synagogue last week. I returned to my home and turned on the CNN Town Hall featuring the students and families of victims of the horrific shooting in Parkland, Florida. Before us on the screen were grieving teenagers, who stood and spoke with great passion and eloquence about the need for serious legislation to limit access to dangerous weapons. I felt inspired by their voices, their strength, their determination to help drive a conversation about the dangers we continue to face if we don’t take real action on guns.

And then, the following morning, Wayne Lapierre of the NRA stood before CPAC and doubled down with a dark and frightening talk. He shared a long list of enemies and people identified as dangers to our way of life. He spoke of the threat of socialism (?) that must be defended against with determination. He claimed that safety for our children and citizens should be addressed in ways other than through limits on guns. He repeated his contention that the way to stop a bad man with a gun was with a good man with a gun.

As I listened to him, it became clear that this was the Memuchan Move in action. In the face of yet another horrific massacre, he was presenting a radically different, self-preserving narrative of the moment. He made it clear that, in his worldview, the real threat, the greater threat here was the assault on Liberty. Protecting the most expansive read and application of the Second Amendment was the only way to protect the freedoms on which the United States was founded. And solve the public safety crisis in some other way.

Those of us who are not card-carrying members of the NRA should listen well. It’s a mistake to paint the gun rights world as made up of a bunch of crazies who just love their guns. The narrative about the second amendment as a matter of assuring our Liberty runs deep. Some use it cynically, but I would venture to say that many, many people hold this view deeply.

The decision is between these two narratives. The fight for real, impactful legislation to restrict the proliferation of weapons is premised on believing that the duty to protect life[3] far outweighs a fear (real or cynically contrived) that freedom and liberty are at risk, and tyranny awaits. The demand for “common sense” gun control laws is based on this understanding of the moment: that the battle to be fought now is 2018’s battle against the epidemic of senseless death at the end of a gun barrel, not the 1776 battle against King George.

Once more, Memuchan is here, misdirecting. He is reframing the narrative in a most sinister way, protecting the status quo at all costs. Don’t let his narrative dominate and paralyze this country from doing what it must to address the gun violence in all its forms.

Remembering Amalek

One final note. I listened with great emotion to the words of parents who spoke during the White House listening session. How could one not choke up when a father shares that he’ll need to go to King David Cemetery if he wants to visit his daughter? As he described the way his daughter was killed — shot nine times, defenseless, on the third floor of the school building- the verses in the Torah about the way Amalek attacked the Israelites rose in my mind: “how he came upon you on the way, and cut down the ones trailing behind…” the ones exposed and defenseless. G-d declared, then and there, that there was a battle to be fought against Amalek. And that battle wasn’t to be won in a moment in one action, it was ongoing, midor dor.

We have heard many legislators claim that instituting this or that new weapons restriction is unlikely to bring an end to the violence, or even keep most weapons out of the hands of dangerous people. That doesn’t matter. This is something that happens step by step. Although I’ve warned here of the danger of the Memuchan Move, the Amalek in this moment is the gun violence itself. We are duty bound to fight that Amalek battle, for as long as it takes; midor dor. For the sake of the children, and for the sake of us all.

[1] One approach in the Talmud (see Megillah 11b-12b) and elsewhere is to read this as a power struggle between the insecure Achashverosh and his queen who, according to Tradition, is the daughter of the last Babylonian king, through whom he has risen to power. Beyond that, the Talmud sees this as an ugly display of sexual depravity and harassment, as it was demanded of her that she appear naked before the Feast. The sexual abuse of women will only intensify as we enter chapter 2, when young women are accosted, eventually forced to sleep with the king, and then remain forever prisoners in his harem…

[2] Some read this as referring to astrologers. I suggest hear a different interpretation.

[3] Jewish law makes it clear that we are forbidden to provide weapons to anyone who have any reason to fear might use them to harm others. See Rambam, Laws of Homicide and Protection of Life 12:12-14. The Torah also demands that we remove all dangers to others from our homes and the public spaces as well. More broadly, the primary obligation to ensure the wellbeing of citizenry- the bulk of parshat mishpatim– was the essence of the covenant at Sinai.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Marder is the rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, where he has served since 1995.
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